There is something almost telepathic about the way Jennifer Jackson Berry’s poem affects me, something nearly alien in its method of communication. To borrow a phrase, I’d almost say the poem is “like a mood that passes through you.”
I first read “My Father’s Dying in Emojis” in Pacifica Review; years later and I still think of it. I feel as if my experience of time and story-telling has been altered by the poem’s completely image-driven text. Too often we divide and simplify poetry by labeling it narrative or lyric, as if music alone couldn’t tell a story, as if there weren’t rhythms buried in our favorite tall tales. Berry efficiently turns this binary on its head and creates the most wrenching narrative using emoji translated into their lyrical (and unaltered) literary equivalents. What is a kind of digital-age, visual cliché becomes a mood, a moment, a movement of loss. By taking emoji off our screens Berry creates something amazing and new on the page, a hybrid language that is innovative as well as traditional, a lyric of loss told through a modern lens.
“Splashing Sweat, Pensive Face.
The piece opens, and immediately the meter propels you. The story unfolds in flashes, a poetic and emotion-filled slideshow. Every emoji described is both instantly identifiable (Hear-No-Evil Monkey, Black Sun With Rays) yet surprisingly juxtaposed against the others. Each one shifts the scene forward a little, each one brings its own emotional complexity. It is a poem that shouldn’t succeed but does due to Berry’s ability to pinpoint the core importance of every image and place them so effectively. There is no confusion over what is happening, how the narrator reacts and feels. Readers are led along, practically possessed.
The repetition in the penultimate line (“Poultry Leg, Poultry Leg, Poultry Leg.”) is strange and wondrous as the repeated “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry” from the famous Robert Haas poem. I am given over to grief and gorging, to a paltry, weak-kneed state. In the end when we are left with a “Leaf Fluttering in Wind,” I am struck by the frailty of it all, an E.E. Cummings-esque loneliness, the emptiness and brevity of everything. That ending, haiku-like, blows me wide open.
So often while looking down at my phone I miss the poetry of the world around. Never did I expect to find awe while looking at the small screen itself. What is your favorite emoji, from the poem or otherwise? Are you able to look at any of them in the same way, or are you, like me, transformed?
Yours in words,